US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart on Sunday huddled once again for tough talks trying to resolve the Ukraine crisis, as Moscow urged Kiev to become a neutral, federal state.
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Russian Ambassador's Residence, in Paris, on March 30, 2014, as they are about discuss the situation in Ukraine
The latest bid to resolve the worst East-West standoff in the post-Cold War era comes after Russian leader Vladimir Putin unexpectedly called US President Barack Obama on Friday asking to pursue a diplomatic solution.
Washington and its allies have imposed a slew of stinging sanctions on Moscow after it annexed Crimea and massed thousands of troops on the borders of eastern Ukraine.
The two men met in the lavish residence of the Russian ambassador to France seeking to hammer out a plan to end the crisis sparked after the pro-Kremlin regime in Kiev fell in February.
Despite the massive troop build-up on Ukraine's borders, Lavrov has insisted Moscow had "absolutely no intention and no interests in crossing the Ukrainian border".
But he called on Western powers Sunday to back a proposal for Ukraine's Russian-speaking regions to have greater powers in a "federal" and neutral Ukraine.
"If our Western partners are ready, then Russia, the United States and the European Union could form a support group on Ukraine," Lavrov told Russian state television.
This would lead to talks between "all Ukrainian political forces without exception, naturally excluding armed radicals", and would end in a new constitution allowing for a "federal structure" with greater regional autonomy, he said.
Moscow's plan would allow parts of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, to declare Russian as a second official language and secure more independence from Kiev -- a move analysts view as a bid to weaken the authority of what is likely to be a permanent new pro-Western leadership.
However, the Ukrainian foreign ministry called on Moscow to stop preaching to its western neighbour.
"We would like to urge Russia, before it presses its ultimatums on a sovereign and independent nation, to take note of the catastrophic state and complete powerlessness of its own ethnic minorities, including Ukrainians," it said in a statement.
- Tributes to Ukraine's fallen -
And flash mobs took to seven Ukrainian airports Sunday, with orchestras and choir singers performing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", also the European anthem, in tribute to the 100 people killed in the weeks-long uprising which ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Moscow government.
Thousands of mourners on Sunday also visited Kiev's Independence Square, the heart of the protest movement, many shedding tears as they laid fresh flowers around makeshift shrines and barricades perfectly preserved since the street battles ended.
"I want my children to know what we went through and to remember these people who gave their lives for their future," said Volodymyr, a computer engineer visiting the site with his two children.
A plan outlining how the crisis could be resolved has gone through a number of modifications.
And Kerry and Lavrov, who have already met at least four times, agreed to have dinner Sunday to continue discussions after talking for almost three hours.
Washington says Moscow put forward a plan on March 10 that has been substantially altered since, and on Monday in The Hague Kerry went "through each point that was made in the Russian proposal with ideas on how to proceed", a State Department official said.
The American ideas "include the need for de-escalation, the disarmament of" pro-Kremlin militias in Ukraine and the need for international monitors, the official said.
They also include calls for direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, constitutional reform and the upcoming Ukrainian elections on May 25.
At the heart of the US initiative is a commitment by Russia to halt its military buildup near its ex-Soviet neighbour --- estimated by US and EU diplomats to have reached between 30,000 and 40,000 soldiers in recent days -- and to order its Crimean forces back to their bases.
Moscow has however so far rejected direct talks with the new, interim Kiev leaders under the auspices of either Washington or some international contact group.
Russia further wants the constitution to proclaim Ukraine a neutral country that will never join forces with NATO -- membership which Kiev's interim leaders say they are not seeking now